How Network Branding, Promotion and Scheduling Determine the Success or Failure of Network Shows

Love Monkey

Love Monkey

The idea for this column began as I composed a letter to Les Moonves in my head. (Not a letter I’d actually send, but I maintain a running chronicle of programmers’ ill-considered moves as part of my unofficial capacity as armchair programmer for all television networks). The news that CBS had placed its new drama Love Monkey on hiatus after just three airings initiated this particular entry. Now admittedly, Love Monkey is probably not the next coming of great TV drama — it is/was, however, of a different disposition than most current dramas (particularly those on CBS) and its character-driven story had piqued my interest. Focused on Tom Ferrell’s (Tom Cavanagh) misadventures as a record executive and his circle of friends, in its first three installations the show offered non-stock characters that I’d like to get to know better. Love Monkey coincidentally had a great deal in common with the only other CBS show that I count myself a fan of, How I Met Your Mother — which brings me back to the point of the column at hand.

Although How I Met Your Mother remains on the CBS schedule, it too has struggled to find an audience. This situation should surprise no one (including Mr. Moonves), as these shows co-exist on a schedule often featuring episodic crime drama in half of its twenty-two hours of weekly programming. (One might say CBS now stands for the Crime Broadcasting System). As audiences have fragmented and become polarized in demographic and psychographic silos of self-interest, programmers have faced the challenge of branding their network specifically enough to be identifiable to viewers, while maintaining the breadth required by their particular economics. These program decisions and brand identities have broader implication than winning ratings on certain nights. Too many hits of a particular nature begin to narrow the audience that samples the network — the primary location for promoting other series. CSI might be the ideal location for promoting Cold Case, Criminal Minds, and even Close to Home (to say nothing of the other CSI‘s), but these shows are less likely to draw the audience most likely to be interested in Love Monkey or How I Met Your Mother.

Few have considered the promotion the networks do for themselves as a fundamental part of the circuit of cultural production. Indeed, in the previous era of three networks and correspondingly broad and heterogeneous audiences, the process was simpler and the sheer lack of programming options made it likely that viewers would happen across each network at some point in their regular viewing. But as channel options have expanded (to say nothing of the DVR empowerment to skip all non-program content), making viewers aware of shows has become more difficult than ever. This has long challenged cable networks that have a less regular viewership, but also is increasingly pressuring broadcast networks to reconsider their promotional strategies. Networks place increasing promotional dollars off-air, evident in ABC’s use of dry-cleaner bags to support the launch of Desperate Housewives, or CBS’s embrace of “coolertising” (placing ads at the bottom of publicly located water coolers) in promoting Out of Practice and Courting Alex. I even recently received a flyer promoting CBS shows in a Val-Pak coupon mailer.

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother

In a fragmented viewing context, the few remaining television events (Super Bowl, American Idol, Olympics) derive value not only from the size of the audience they deliver, but as a site for promoting other series. Broad hits (such as those just mentioned) are particularly valuable because of the heterogeneity of their audiences and the fact that their event status draws people to the network who may not watch it otherwise. Certainly, top weekly series such as CSI also provide a valuable promotional site, but the increasing demographic and psychographic specificity of many successful shows disables cross-promotion of non-similar programming. The content and themes of Love Monkey and How I Met Your Mother are fundamentally different from the great majority of CBS content, and because CBS programs few other shows that match them, it makes it difficult for the network to use its airtime to expose likely viewers to these shows.

Instances of networks replicating hit formulas over and over to the eventual detriment of the network exist as cautionary tales too numerous to count (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire providing the most obvious example). It is difficult to turn away from a winning formula (say, crime dramas), but too much of any one thing makes it difficult to re-diversify the schedule. Of course the challenge is knowing when a trend becomes excessive, or rather, stopping before you get there. As CBS prepared to launch the fewest new shows of any network this season (Criminal Minds, Close to Home, Ghost Whisperer, How I Met Your Mother, Out of Practice, Threshold), conventional wisdom suggested the crime drama’s presence across all networks’ schedules had over-inundated viewers. Yet, CBS’s new shows in this genre rank among this season’s successes. The network’s difficulty launching solid shows that are differentiated from the crime brand, however, suggests evidence of impending problems.

This scenario played out slightly differently across the dial at NBC earlier in the decade. After television critics complained that Jeff Zucker was diluting the NBC brand with Fear Factor in the summer of 2001, Zucker retorted that he headed a broadcast network, a reality that prevented him from scheduling twenty-one hours a week of The West Wing1. Indeed, Zucker was correct in noting the specific challenge that competing in a niche brand environment provides for broadcasters. Yet consider, for example, ABC’s recent ratings resurgence and the tools they used to build this success. The rapid ABC ascension resulted from the network’s success with four new dramas: Boston Legal, Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy. Although each show differs significantly from the others in subgenre and other formal characteristics, the shows feature a consistent quality of writing and general level of innovation. After five years of police procedurals and the intricate examination of corpses on all networks, these four shows dared to tread entirely different territory, and in many cases, returned components of serial storytelling and character depth that had been eliminated by the procedural surge of the preceding years. Yet these shows did not circumscribe a narrow audience with these characteristics, but achieved the precarious balance of consistency and variation that allows a network to remain a site for promotion of varied content.

So, while Love Monkey might not have returned sizable audiences, I’ll always wonder if its fate would have been different if it had premiered after ample promotion during the young and male skewing Final Four tournament. This show had a much more difficult plight than many of the others CBS has launched in recent seasons (and scheduling it against SVU and Boston Legal wasn’t exactly a walk in park — I can guess what the crime drama viewers were watching). Love Monkey and How I Met Your Mother are valuable to CBS for reasons other than ratings, they maintain breadth in the CBS brand and provide a reason for people who have had enough of crime drama to stop by the network. (Catch the unaired episodes of Love Monkey on Tuesdays at 9:00 on VH1).

1 Mark Robinson, Brought to You in Living Color: 75 Years of Great Moments in Television and Radio from NBC (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 205.

And a Note on Method and Assumptions

Given the comparative informality of Flow columns and their emphasis on immediacy, I have not researched this situation in the depth appropriate for more conventional academic venues — such as by interviewing series’ creative staff and network programmers. As it stands here, it seems my article may reproduce one of my least favorite tropes in popular and academic discussions of television: setting up the television worker as dunderhead. Often decisions that appear short-sighted and unconsidered on the surface or to outsiders (such as the quick cancellation of Love Monkey), are well reasoned or result from obscured and complicated factors identifiable only through deliberate and extensive research. (But my point about promotion in this era still stands).

Image Credits:

1. Love Monkey

2. How I Met Your Mother

Please feel free to comment.


  • The problem of promotion

    You’ve identified an important and rarely acknowledged component of broadcast economics and culture, with many avenues of research and analysis.

    This must have been an issue even back in the heyday of the Big 3, to an extent. For example, just how did CBS promote the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in order to take down the Bonanza juggernaut on NBC? How extensive was pre-season publicity in the pre-cable days?

    A couple of other questions also come to mind. To reverse your query, how does CBS distinguish its newer procedurals from its older ones? Does it even bother as much? They’re certainly aware of franchise fatigue (e.g., they have no plans for any further CSI shows), but do they have a zeitgeist-ometer for genre fatigue as well?

    Secondly, the example of Desperate Housewives dry-cleaning bags indicates a certain willingness to hunt down audiences in their off-TV habitat. I wonder not only about other current examples, but historical ones as well. The web is an obvious marketing tool here, but I’d be curious to see what other ideas have been tried out in recent years.

  • Could TV be more like baseball?

    I agree with Amanda’s call to pay attention to the promotional activities of networks in constituting line-ups and brand identities. In my hypothetical screed to broadcasting executives, I’d ask why can’t the television industry more effectively leverage the conglomerated system to nuture programs and build audiences.

    Today it seems that each conglomerate regards its broadcast network as the main site of new programming in traditional primetime genres, and uses its stable of cable channels as alternatives (risque fare, lower-profile genres) or rerun depositories. Why not look at the cable channels, which can sustain lower ratings than networks, as “farm teams” as in baseball? A new program with a more niche appeal could launch on a FX, Bravo, or ABC Family, with promotion on networks – as buzz builds, promote it to the major leagues. If a show falters in the bigs, send it back to the minors to gain traction. As most programs are produced by the same conglomerate that airs it, flexible licensing seems quite doable.

    The current system seems both horribly inefficient (with most cable channels stuffed with filler and networks struggling to build hits from scratch) and designed to condemn programs with potential before they can build an audience. Les – if you’re out there, give me a call!

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  • The phenomenon of increasing specialization in programming is most evident the relatively recent evolutionary step: the hyper-specialized network that shows only one format of programming (i.e. the golf network, the scifi channel.) through these venues, audiences can watch current and syndicated shows within their favorite genre.
    However, there are some very good examples of shows that could be considered cross-genre that seem to address some of the difficulties that specialization present to programmers. Two well established examples are Smallville and Supernatural. Both follow a lot of the conventions of the popular nighttime teen/young adult oriented dramas (Melrose place, 90210): unrequited love, personal conflicts, multiple or changing alliances. This factor alone makes them attract fans of that type of programming.
    However, they also capitalize on their specific formulae. Supernatural adds elements of magic and demons to its personality, giving fans of that subject matter additional material to relish. Smallville can attract comic book fans in general and Superman fans specifically, which also makes it a potential for an older fan base eager to revisit the evolution of their hero. As a result, they attract a relatively les specialized slightly hybrid audience.
    In either case, the network has an opportunity to peddle its other wares during commercial time in the hopes of attracting some fans who could be willing to give their other dramatic shows (without demons or superheroes) a chance.
    Additionally, a very interesting development of conglomerate response to the narrowing viewership demographic of shows is the increase in affiliate marketing. They have the opportunity to advertise somewhat similar shows or cross platform shows on affiliated networks, drawing customers to that network. Both shows also frequently feature affiliated musical artist’s music as background music for segments of their episodes, transforming the show into a pseudo music video for the song that is playing. They will then during credits call attention to the fact that they used this artist’s music from their current CD – even displaying cover art. The point is, because they know the audience, they can match the artists and songs perfectly.

  • Although disappointing and unfair, due to reasons that Amanda already pointed out, the modern era of TV programming, does not allow all programs equal opportunity for success as other shows are. It seems convenient that there are over 800 channels on my cable box, and even a luxury to know that most channels are producing homogeneous programs targeted at a specific type of person, I can’t help but think that this shuts out the opportunity for diversity in my normal fare. Why would I want to watch another channel if I have my crime, drama, comedy, and occasional science-fiction guilty pleasure covered by four channels that I’ve been watching for years and fulfill these desires in my short 8-hour TV watching week (this number may be grossly exaggerated in either direction). This diverse set of channels that are designed around a certain type of programming only locks in my viewership to those channels, and gives me little chance at diversifying my normal routine, because I have everything I might want to watch already. This problem, in regards to being exposed to new programs that I may unknowingly enjoy, eclipses that of network scheduling. A program like Monkey Love may have been smarter reaching out to more of a comedic channels, as the big channels are becoming more and more defined by their content. I do think, however, that these genre-specific channels do benefit the audience and the networks more, but leaves the chances of watching another program/genre and breaking viewer norms to advertising.

    Advertising is where networks need to put their most energy, but fairly for each program. I feel confident saying that many shows meet their doom due to the consumer base not knowing that the show exists, let alone what it’s about. Any show picked up by a network needs to be given the opprotunity to be known about, it’s only fair to promote Monkey Love as much as CSI. Advertising across channels would be unsuccessful, leaving advertisers to find creative ways to inform audiences. Guerrilla ads are the future of getting the word out. But at the same time, I wonder if they too are/will become too specific to a type of viewer. The dry-cleaning bags for Desperate Housewives comes to mind…. I’ve always found that I discover the best shows by word of mouth. That could be the next step perhaps; a paid “secret shopper” type, who is given x dollars every time he/she drops the name of a show. I would do it.

    The truth of the matter is that all of this heads towards the internet. Forget network branding, I can watch hundreds of shows on Hulu or Netflix; forget about the thousands of options I have from illegal sources. These shows provide a virtual library of material that I pay very very little for access to (the 1-at-a-time on Netflix costs $8.95, and gives me one DVD at a time, but access to ANYTHING in the watch instantly category, which is HUGE). Forget going to a crime channel to watch something crime-y, my display is big enough to give a stellar viewing of any crime show I may want to watch anywhere I can get internet, which is virtually everywhere! Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube all offer a “related links” or “you might also like…” suggests to keep all your viewing needs content.

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